The Elements and the Four Cardinal Directions   31 comments

Greetings, Dear Readers!

The Four Philosophical Elements

The Four Philosophical Elements

Most of you are likely familiar with the four Elements and their association with the four cardinal points of the compass.  The usual pattern in most modern traditions places Air in the east, Fire in the south, Water in the west and Earth in the north – an arrangement often attributed to the “four winds” of the earth-plane.  A more stellar arrangement (based on astrology) places Fire in the east, Earth in the south, Air in the west and Water in the North.  (See later in this post for more on that.)

I just had Ravin Digitalis ask me if I was aware of any tradition that assigns Air to the north and Earth to the east – and if such a tradition could be traced back to 5000 BCE.  In my response, I cover many different associations of Elements to directions and where they (or where they likely) came from.  I think you might find it interesting:

To my knowledge, there are no systems of correspondences of Elements to directions that go back to 5000 BCE.  The earliest such correspondences could have arisen would have been in cultures that developed astrology – likely going back no further than Babylon.  Not even Egypt had such correspondences that I know of – though they did have the four Sons of Horus as the pillars of the four directions (associated with the arms and legs of Nut), I’ve never seen any Egyptian text that associates them directly with four Elements.

From astrology we have Fire in the East (Aries), Earth in the South (Capricorn), Air in the West (Libra) and Water in the North (Cancer) – an arrangement that still existed when Agrippa wrote his work (see Three Books of Occult Philosophy – Scale of the Number Four).  Another, perhaps sidereal, version would use the fixed signs:  Leo in the East, Taurus in the South, Aquarius in the West and Scorpius in the North.

I’ve never found anything definitive on where the Air in the East arrangement – common in the Golden Dawn, Thelema and thus Wicca – came from.  However, the GD was very into Ezekiel’s vision – which shows God’s Throne supported by the four Kherubs whose faces are Man (Aquarius) in the front, Eagle (Scorpius) behind, Lion (Leo) to the right and Bull (Taurus) to the left.  If you face the Throne Eastward, and assume that “right” and “left” are from the perspective of the Throne itself, that gives the usual arrangement of Elements to the directions: Air-East, Water-West, Fire-South, Earth-North.

However, there is some ambiguity here.  In Ezekiel’s vision (approximately 600 BCE), the Throne is not facing the East – he describes it as coming out of the North and facing/moving Southward.  That would put the Man (Air) facing South and the Eagle (Water) facing North.  If we still assume Ezekiel’s mention of “right” and “left” are from the perspective of the Throne, that would put the Lion (Fire) facing the West and the Ox (Bull) facing East.  That would give you Earth in the East, but not Air in the North.

BUT – if we assume Ezekiel was referring to his *own* right and left, the two Kherubs would be reversed so the Lion would face East and the Bull would face West.  But that doesn’t give you Air in the North or Earth in the East…

The only other example I know of (off the top of my head at least) is from the Key of Solomon, where directions are given for the construction of a magick carpet.  There, one is told that Michael (Fire) is in the East, Raphael (Air) is in the North, Gabriel (Water) is in the West and Muriel (Earth) is in the South.  This one gives you Air in the North, but not Earth in the East.  lol

So I don’t see any traditional source for the arrangement [you mention] – and sure as hell nothing going back as far as 5000 BCE!  lol  Good luck!

If anyone knows of other associations and their origins, feel free to reply below and share with us.  :)

UPDATE:  Looks like Alex Sumner can tell us where the Golden Dawn got its “Four Winds” (aka Seasonal) attribution of the Elements to their directions.  In the same blog, he reveals something fascinating:  the “ADNI Formula” (as opposed to the better-known “YHVH Formula”).  Awesome!



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31 responses to “The Elements and the Four Cardinal Directions

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  1. Myself and others often use the Fire in the North (south for you Northern Hemisphere folks) because that’s the warmest side of a building or street.
    Originally I have used fire in the east a dawning star, light of renewal and life and illumination, but when doing service to wardens of the watchtowers I found that the north/fire correspondence was what awaited me on my journey.
    On a similar note Water was always west, which on an island makes sense as the setting sun (underworld, death) passes into the waters. Just as life yields to the fluidic unknown and other mysteries of the beyond. Very much a veil of tears for/from the departed about those they will miss.
    The South (North for the Infidels), was the darker times, the cold, damp part of the house, and the cheap and often phlegmy side of the street (with colds and molds and buying for cheapness being the norm). Thus one plants into the colder Earth; at slower, sleepier times. A hibernation of the seed in the Earth. The dark coolness, balancing out the destructive scoring heat of summers fire.
    Which left the poor cousin Air, in the East, of bright crisp mornings, potential of things to come and the clear head of meditating after a good nights rest. One did not seek to control the Air, merely marvel in its call and promises. A good time to plan out a day, to do a pathworking, juist just revel in the senses when they are at their lightest.

    – Built from first principles.


  2. Interesting article. Concerning the placement of the elements with Air/East, Fire/South, Water/West, Earth/North, it seems obvious to me that it is based on the dominant type of weather during each of the four season of north-west Europe : Spring (morning, East) : warm and wet -> Air; Summer (midday, south) : hot and dry -> Fire; Autumn (evening, West): cool and wet -> Water; Winter (night, North) : cold and less wet than autumn -> Earth. These dominant types of weather were called “winds”, from what I gather. But the dominant charactrer of winds in Western Europe is not the same. Eastern winds are cold and dry (Earth), north winds are cold and wet (Water), west winds are warm and wet (Air), south winds are hot and dry (Fire).


  3. Pingback: The Placing of the Elements In A Golden Dawn Temple | Sol Ascendans - The Website of Alex Sumner

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  5. And then we have one more complication or two…
    The Tarot sequence (G.D) is: Pentacles (Earth/Assiah) in the East,Swords (Air/Yerzirah) in the North, Cups (Water/Briah) in the West , Wands (Fire/ Atziluth) in South. But the order of the Aces is Pentacles, Wands, Cups, Swords. (which doesn’t really work does it?)
    And the World card clearly shows the four elements or directions based on the Fixed signs of the zodiac and not the Cardinal signs.
    I see many contradictions here!

    In Taoism we have the 5 elements as Water(North), Metal (West), Fire (South), Earth (centre), Wood (East)

    Personally, I believe that these correspondences must be flexible, but the intent of the operator very clear! Also that one should take into consideration Above and Below


    • Actually if you look at the Zodiac Signs and Decans assigned to the Tarot cards in the GD system, and put them in proper Zodiacal order, it begins with the Two of Wands (Mars in Aries) and ends with the Ten of Cups (Mars in Pisces) – placing Cardinal Fire in the East, Cardinal Earth in the South, Cardinal Air in the West and Cardinal Water in the North. :)


    • BZ, the order of which you speak derives from the Convoluted Forces. This is not a static system, but revolves with the heavens. In this light, the sequence in which you have placed the elements is exactly the same as the YHVH formula, but starting from a different element.


  6. Thank you Aaron for this post. GD elements and winds are a bit of an obsession of my own and I’m always glad to see some more info posted on the subject!


  7. Hello Aaron,

    I also corresponded with Raven around the same question recently and he pointed me to this discussion. I would agree with you that there is no system of the four elements attributed to the directions going back to 5000 BCE, in fact I find the idea rather absurd. David Rankine and I researched the origins of the elements quite extensively when we were writing our books Practical Elemental Magick and Wicca Magickal Beginnings some years ago. The earliest reference to the four elements which were able to find in Western mysticism dates to around 500 BCE, and can be found in the writings of Empedocles. In his Tetrasomia – which is a Doctrine of the Four Elements, Empedocles expressed the view that the four elements were not only the building blocks of the universe, but also spiritual essences. However, he did not name the four principles as “elements” but rather used the terms rhizai, which means ‘roots’ and rhizomata i.e. ‘root-clumps’ – he was a herbal magician, so this makes sense in the context of his work. Aristotle in the 4th century BCE subsequently expounded on his work, especially on them as spiritual essences. Some years later Plato continued the work, with his own new take.

    There is a bridge between the work of the Greek philosophers and that of Egypt, with Manetho 3rd century BCE recording a deity attribution in which elements are named and attributed to different deities (example, ‘the moist element is named Oceanus …’).

    Philolaos attributed the elements to the four segments of the zodiacal circle – which is likely to be the first attribution to directions in a circle.

    The attributions which were used in the majority of esoteric texts, can be traced back to Zosimos of Panopolis’ 3rd century CE text Upon the Letter Omega – and gives Fire = East, Air = South, Water = West and Earth = North. The current attribution used in most forms of Wicca and modern Paganism,( ie Air = East, Fire = South, Water = West and Earth = North) most likely originates with Eliphas Levi, which means it is mid-nineteenth century, when he switches the directions attributing Salamanders (fire) to the South and Sylphs (air) to the East, with Undines (Water) in the West and Gnomes (Earth) in the North (Transcendental Magic). Levi’s work was available and studied by the members of the GD, so likely this is where they picked it up and whence it filtered down into other forms of modern magic and the pagan revival.

    xx Sorita


    • Awesome, Sorita, thanks for the expansion! :)


    • Brilliant reply, Sorita!

      I feel you might be right saying the the GD attributions originate in Levi’s writings. The only thing that bothered me since ever is why are the winds specifically mentioned when explaining the attributions. The tradition of attributing astrological/astronomical qualities to ‘winds’ goes back as far as ancient Mesopotamia. But none of the Mesopotamian texts give the same attributions as the GD papers.

      Incidentally there is a very interesting article by Deborah Houlding on Hippocrates, Humous & Temerament Theory ( She interprets his ‘On Airs, Waters, and Places’ attributing Humours to the directions in the same manner that GD attributes the elements to the directions. I recommend to read the source text first though, because imho the interpretation is very slippery. Hippocrates actually never specifically attributes the humours to the directions in the above-mentioned manner it’s just Deborah’s interpretation that does so. It is up to the reader to agree or disagree with her.


    • Could you please quote/cite/refer specifically to which chapter/passage Zosimos attributes the elements to the cardinal points? I can’t find the book “On the letter Omega” on the web, just fragments, and from what I have read, there is no such attribution.


  8. Thanks Aaron, I got confused because of the Aces attributions.
    Then I see that the GD assigns Pentacles (Earth/Assiah) in the North, Swords (Air/Yerzirah) in the East, Cups (Water/Briah) in the West , Wands (Fire/ Atziluth) in South. (according to Donald Tyson who inverts Swords and Pentacles, placing Swords. (Air), in the North and Pentacles,(Earth), in the East ). He reasons that North has to do with the cutting winds of winter, and he associates pentacles with seeds that bring new life in Spring, in the East. (portable magic)
    I can’t say that I agree with him because I see symbols as transcending our earthly existence, they have to do with principle. After all the elements and the seasons are different north and south of the globe.

    Another very credible system by (Z.B. Halevi) is that Malkuth is the material (pentacles), Yetzirah is the watery world of changing images (realm of Yesod) and so should be associated with Water and cups, (not Swords/Air). Briah is Air (swords), Fire is the primal light / space of Atziluth (wands). (sometimes these last two elements are reversed).


  9. PS. Actually I was never convinced by that G.D junction of Mars in Pisces and Mars n Aries because in this way the planetary sequence is broken by the two Mars in a row. The sequence should be unbroken: Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury, Moon, Saturn, Jupiter, and again Mars, Sun … etc
    Of course I understand that you can’t fit 7 planets into 36 decants and that this is a compromise.
    Alas, on this earth nothing quite fits. Our sun/moon/earth calendar is up the creek for starters!


    • BZ, this is not a GD invention. It is at least 2 thousand year old astrological attribution of planets to decans, known as ‘faces’.


      • Yeah – Agrippa also gives this same list of faces (alongside another method of attributing the decans) – both of which he states are ancient. He is likely the GD’s source.


      • I Agree, Agrippa is most likely the GD source. As for the decan system, it is *the* oldest system of decans used in antiquity, when Babylonian and Egyptian astronomical knowledge merged in hellenistic astrology. See Liber Hermetis or Antiochus of Athens for comparison.


  10. I will have to see if I can find a source for it myself, but when i was kid (and not as apt to ask for sources) I was taught that the arrangement used most commonly came from the geography around Jerusalem. Looking at the map you see it easily: Mediterranean in the west, Greener lands of Turkey to the North, Arrid lands of Jordan and Iraq to the east, and of course the warmer lands to the south.

    Like I said, no textual reference that I know of, but I thought it was worth mentioning.


    • I’ve heard this same theory myself (also unattributed) – but I don’t think it really stands up to history. If the Biblical record is any indication (Ezekiel, etc), they were more interested in the stars (Man, Eagle, Lion and Bull) for their attributions than in geography. Plus, our modern concept of the four Elements of nature originated with Empedocles – who lived in a Greek city in Sicily in 5th Century BCE. And he wouldn’t have had the same geography as they had in Israel.


  11. I will have to find a text, but I think that the elements use in Buddhism pre-dates Emedocles. And in Buddhism the directions are linked to the geography around My Meru, so its a similar situation. Even if it doesnt pre-date though, Empedocles need not be the source for directional attributes, especially not the Air-East correspondence.

    While in general I agree about the stars over local geography being of interest, I would make an exception for the Temple Mount. The orientation of Christianity as a recovery of the Temple cannot be overstated. All this though is conjecture until I can dig up some sources.


    • Yeah I have no doubt the Bhuddist system goes back a long way. Though that wouldn’t likely be the source for the GD, as their primary source for Eastern material was Theosophy rather than actual Buddhist sources. As far as I know, the GD took their Elemental system from Eliphas Levi, and I suspect Alex Sumner is correct that it came ultimately from “Tetrabiblos” by Claudius Ptolemy.

      I don’t think I’ve seen any Elemental associations for the Temple of Solomon… At least outside of the Golden Dawn’s interpretation of the Altar of Burnt Offerings, Laver of Brass, Altar of Incense and Table of Shewbread. Though these were not placed in the four cardinal directions.


      • Aaron, check my comment on Alex’s blog. There is no way that elemental attribution can be attributed to Ptolemy – he gives completely different elemental associations both to winds and to directions. Check also my reply to Sorita – the best connection we can make to antiquity is by linking it to the text of Hippocrates, but it is quite stretched imho.


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  13. The system that makes the most sense to me personally was put forth in the 3rd century CE by Zosimos. It puts Fire in the East, Air in the South, Water in the West, and Earth in the North, thus giving us a progression from the least to the most dense elements. But that’s just my preference.


  14. I have a massive amount of notes on this subject… somewhere around here.
    If you want to see a visual representation of three different systems, look here:

    Most sources over 500 years old agree with the third system


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  16. In my specific path we have East – Air – first breath. South – Fire – strength/adulthood. West – Earth – Death. North – Water – Limbo/Pre-existence.

    If we start in the North we work from Densest to Lightest, and it likewise follows the earth invoking pentagram of:spirit drawn to Earth->water->air->fire->spirit.

    It also correlates to the lower Sephiroth on the Tree of Life. Feet in Malkut/Earth, arms stretched out on either side to Hod/Water in the north and Netzach/Fire to the South, Head toward Tipheret.

    Temple room having that layout, as though the lower ToL was on the floor.. with the action at the altar in the center as Yesod.. uniting Tipheret with Malkuth
    For our practice and our desired outcome it works well.

    The order of Limbo/Birth/Adulthood/Death tying in to Winter/Spring/Summer/Autumn and Dawn/Noon/Sunset/Midnight —

    I really think it comes down to what the work is being done.
    Does it make sense to the practitioner.
    If it flows well and fits the intended purpose, I think the location of the elements matters less than the aspects of those elements themselves.


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